Disclaimer: This article is written by our community contributor. If you would like to contribute your story, reach out to us at [email protected]
“You only live once.”
That was the thought we had when we decided to share our personal credit card details over Twitter. In 2018, Malaysia was having its elections, and many countrymen who were living abroad wanted to return home. However, flight tickets were expensive for them. At that point of time, it was an unthinkable move for others to comprehend, or some might even say naive.
Would people pay you back?
Vish and I first met through a talent investor, Entrepreneur First (EF) that brings together individuals from different backgrounds to fund their ideas. For every founder out there, the biggest challenge when entering a program like this was always to be able to find the right co-founder whom you can work with. Thankfully, we both had complementary skills, and this match happened to work.
Split had initially started out with a proposition for travel, where people could book their travels and pay over time. People love to travel, but the upfront cost tends to be the biggest hurdle. We wanted to be able to remove that hurdle, so that more people would be able to “see the world” while allowing travel businesses to gain incremental revenue.
“But would people pay you back?”
That was an idea we needed to validate — The plan seemed great, but we wanted to discover if people would actually pay us back if we paid for them first. We wanted to also do it in a way where as little time and effort is invested as possible. At that time, the best way to do this was to look for strangers on Twitter and share our personal credit card details to buy stuff for them.
Was it risky? Perhaps so. In the worst case scenario, we lose a few thousand dollars of our own. However, the best case scenario would be that we get to validate an idea and build a company around it. We chose to take the risk, and it validated our idea that Split managed to succeed.
Many Challenges Ahead
All was well for Split, but in early 2020, our revenues plummeted all the way when COVID-19 hit. After many conversations, we made a decision to pivot the same value proposition to e-commerce and retail, a space neither of us had experience in.
The biggest challenge was pivoting from the travel industry into e-commerce and retail in the wake of COVID-19 – we were underfunded, had zero experience in the space and were up against well-funded established competitors. With a very limited financial runway, we had to validate numerous ideas in a matter of weeks, then make iterative changes to our offering until we achieved product-market fit.
The other challenge we faced with pivoting is that literally, no one knew us. When we’re promising to process orders and securely handle payments, there is an uphill battle of building trust with merchants and consumers to convince them to give us a try. We did this by providing non-scalable first class service to our early adopter customers and merchants. We were spending hours every day personally providing concierge service, ensuring that they had nothing but a fantastic pre-purchase, purchase and post-purchase experience. It was also an opportunity for us to get product feedback on the fly, allowing us to quickly iterate and adjust for our next merchants and customers.
Our thoughts on the BNPL model
While uncertain initially, we would say that we made the right choice to pivot despite the difficulties. In an unpredictable economy, access to basic forms of credit such as BNPL becomes much more important.
One of the biggest concerns over the BNPL model the public has is that it encourages consumerism and overspending. This was something that we took into account from the very start, whereby our model only works when customers do not overspend and pay us on time. For example, if someone misses a payment, they will not be able to make any new purchases until the payments are settled. We also set strict limits on how much a consumer can spend on a transaction. This model has worked well for us so far. Ultimately, we see the need to rely on the goodwill and better consumer habits for a better system.
With the rise of the BNPL market in Southeast Asia, we (as providers ourselves) do think that authorities should ensure innovation meets consumer protection. Many of the BNPL users in the region are using a credit-like service for the first time. Therefore, we feel that as one of the providers in Southeast Asia we have an obligation to tweak our revenue model to accommodate and protect a different profile of consumers in this developing part of the world. For us, it was as simple as not charging late fees to consumers for missing payments. Providers and authorities should also work together closely, especially because financial literacy in Southeast Asia isn’t as established as more developed BNPL markets globally.
Looking back on our journey
A founder’s journey could be an incredibly lonely one. There are many highs and lows, and there are times it might feel as though we have lost all direction while hardly anyone can empathize.
Split managed to pivot successfully, but one thing we learned is that sometimes, there is a need to adopt a “ no one cares about you” belief system. While this sounds harsh, it is a truly liberating feeling to have.
For example, if you didn’t do very well in an investor meeting, you need to understand that these organizations see 100s of startups a year. So with that, you have to just let your failures go and pitch to them again in 3 months. Alternatively, pitch your business to someone else, and see if it opens another door of opportunity.
Sometimes, all it takes is pushing boundaries, and doing whatever it takes for an idea to succeed, even if that idea is a crazy one. For us, it was buying things for strangers on the internet, hoping they would pay us back.